JJapanese Envoys in Britain, 1862-1964: A Century of Diplomatic Exchange, compiled and edited by Ian Nish. Global Oriental, 2007, 255 pp, 55 (cloth)

Next year Britain and Japan celebrate 150 years of diplomatic relations, and just on cue comes this book, “Japanese Envoys in Britain (1862-1964),” which contains biographical portraits of Japanese diplomatic representatives up to 1964. Its counterpart, “British Envoys in Japan,” was published by the Japan Society in 2004 and is about to appear in Japanese translation. Now we have both sides of the story.

The Japanese envoys were a distinguished group. After their time in London, eight became foreign minister and two (Takaaki Kato and Shigeru Yoshida) became prime minister. So this book introduces not only the envoys to London but also many of the most important figures in Japanese foreign policy.

Their experiences mirror the history of the period. To start with, Japan was learning from the West, and there is much emphasis on the Japanese students sent to Britain and the British experts sent to Japan. Although Japanese diplomats struggled to have their country recognized as the equal of the European powers, they eventually succeeded not only in revising the “unequal” treaties but also in entering a formal alliance with Britain in 1902. This was the apogee of the friendship between the two countries. Sadly, later envoys had to contend with the slide into a war that none could prevent and, after the war, with the bitterness that it left behind.

Many of the envoys were strong, independent personalities. Tadasu Hayashi had his memoirs banned from publication by the Japanese Foreign Ministry. Shuzo Aoki clashed so often with his own foreign minister that he eventually suffered the rebuke that a count (the minister) did not expect counter-instructions from a mere viscount (Aoki).

On the other hand, the envoys could also be tough with the British when necessary. Sutemi Chinda, for example, stood his ground when the imperious Lord Curzon tried to browbeat him and gave an “almost impassioned” defense of his country.

Of particular interest are the two great prewar ambassadors, Tsuneo Matsudaira and Shigeru Yoshida. Both won many British friends and took risks in the cause of peace. Matsudaira stuck his neck out over Manchuria, and Yoshida tried on his own initiative, with no cover from Tokyo, to negotiate an Anglo-Japanese agreement in 1936-37.

This book not only describes the twists and turns of negotiation; it also presents something of the daily life of the envoys and their families, and of the British circles they moved in. Ayako Ishizaka for example recalls her diplomatic childhood and her British nanny, who properly taught her that “got” was American and not good English and that “young ladies never hate, they dislike.” Yoshida perfectly mixes British experience with Japanese sensibility in feeding the swans on the Thames and observing “a full moon rising over the fir tree.”

This book contains many such moments. Perhaps the thread running through it is how individual diplomats have tried down the years to reduce the gulf of incomprehension with which Britain and Japan started out.

Ian Nish, the editor of this book and author of many of the portraits, notes that initially even the Anglo-Japanese Alliance was one of mutual ignorance. Even today, when travel and the Internet have brought us much closer together, and the job of an ambassador has changed enormously, we still have a need for people with a deep enough knowledge to interpret one society and culture for the other.

Graham Fry is British ambassador to Japan.

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